“Influences” - The Making of a Garden(er), Installment 2

An Urbanist Architect in the Garden
December 22, 2015

Managing Partner Fred Bland explores his love of gardens in a five-part series entitled “Making of a Garden(er): An Urbanist Architect in the Garden.” This Installment 2 is about the many influences contributing to his approach. The series begins with Fred’s early gardening experiences, tracing the roots of his childhood experiences, initial projects, and the foundations of his first garden, Installment 1: “A Gardener Grows…”. Other installments include: Installment 3: “A Garden Grows”, Installment 4: “A Walk in the Garden”, and “One View Four Seasons” [Installment 5 forthcoming].

Any creator is influenced by many sources and mine are numerous, both gardens themselves as well as writers about gardens.

Eleanor Perenyi’s classic, Green Thoughts, A Writer in the Garden, of 1982 started me out and remains a loyal friend (the book, that is; the lady herself, now gone, lived only 50 miles away and although I had a chance to meet her, I never did). This book resides more or less continuously at my side. Obviously, its subtitle inspired my own.

A trip to England in June 1988 opened my eyes wider: one memorable day, the morning spent at Sissinghurst

Tony Hisgett

Sissinghurst Gardens

…And the afternoon at Great Dixter, including a brief chat with the great Christopher Lloyd himself.

Robert Dash’s captivating yet slightly hallucinogenic Notes from Madoo was both relevant (we have similar growing conditions) and engagingly off-beat. Chronicling the making of his garden on the East End of Long Island, this volume is also a bed stand mainstay.

The gardens and plant palettes of Piet Oudouf and Jacques Wirtz inspire me as well as many others. These great creators I know only through their published works.

A garden by Piet Oudolf at Pensthorpe in Hummelo, NL

Jacques Wirtz’s Private Garden

The best way to learn is through personal experience and friendship with people who know more than you do — and are willing to share. In this regard, I have been lucky, indeed. Over the past dozen years, I have come to know well my Connecticut near-neighbor Nick Nickou, by any standard one of America’s great plantsmen, and his wife Carol Hanby, equally knowledgeable about the most esoteric and rare gems. My Chadd’s Ford gardening friend of thirty years, Lynn Carbonell is also a treasure trove of green esoterica.

Dr. Nicholas Nikou, 2010

Killims Point, Branford, CT

Another Connecticut neighbor, Michael Rosenthal, possessor of a garden gem by the sea, and I share all sorts of successes and failures. These folks have been generous with their abundant knowledge as well as their plants!

I met Lynden Miller at the Rare Plant Auction at Longwood Gardens in the mid-eighties. Her fame had preceded her and she rather awed me then. Incredibly, over the years of our friendship and continual chatter about our own gardens, about the many public gardens in New York she was remaking, and about our botanical gardens (she, that large place in the Bronx; mine, that smaller place in Brooklyn). She has become a treasured and indispensible friend, garden or otherwise. Her famous garden in Sharon, CT and her signature plant combinations inspire me, as they have the horticultural world. It is a rare artist, indeed, who creates a personal signature.

Lynden Miller and Fred Bland in the Miller garden, Sharon, CT

Lynden Miller Garden, Sharon, CT

But as an architect in the garden, I have come to realize I have been influenced in ways that most gardeners have not. They emanate from the pen of Camillo Sitte, J.B. Jackson, Kevin Lynch… from Paris… from Rome… from Beijing… and a few modern painters, perhaps most particularly Klee, Kandinsky, and Vlaminck.

Also, from the great Roman Baroque streets and churches as interpreted by Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966. In this seminal text, perhaps the most influential I have ever read as an architect, Venturi interpreted the Roman churches of Bernini and Borromini as essays in reconciling complex architectural programs within their urban context, “the superimposition of enclosing elements, which are successively convex, perpendicular, and then concave, become contrasting things behind things to work transitions between the outside and the inside.”

I gradually came to realize that such insightful thinking might also apply to making a garden. I began to see a garden as a city, a collection of individual plants (ie. buildings) willfully molded into a larger whole. Streets, squares, piazzas, gateways and portals, spheres and pylons, public streets with public buildings, hidden neighborhoods and individual dwellings, axial vistas and curvilinear arrangements: they were, unknowingly, all elements of the garden I was making. My maze of Medieval paths in the Woodland Walk stand in adjacent contradiction to the Renaissance perspectival conceit of the Double Border: Greenwich Village meets Park Avenue.

This was an exhilarating and liberating notion. And it began to connect the sometimes discordant threads of my career as an architect and as a gardener.

Also influential was Michael Dennis’ brilliant 1986 book, Court & Garden. In this persuasive volume, the architect and teacher Michael Dennis continued, for me, this line of analysis, however now using the hotels particuliares (aristocratic town houses) of 17th and 18th century Paris.

“The French hotel is to the art of the plan what the Venetian façade is to the art of the vertical surface.” This book increased my interest in and understanding of these Baroque resolutions in plan of complex geometric interrelationships by re-centering symmetries and creating subtle axial arrangements to control chaos.

My more recent affair with China (13 trips in 4 years) and the classic scholar’s gardens (most brilliantly executed in Souzhou) were fascinating but too exotic and foreign to my culture. Perhaps I was influenced more by the astounding Forbidden City, its axial methodology of linking large and small things, and its juxtaposition of vast space with intimate places. Changes of level — like everything else here — was never accidental or merely functional, but rather highly ceremonial and symbolic.

These rich spatial sequences are understood only by walking through them, often precisely on the greatest axis in the world (more sublime than Versailles or the Louvre). The kinetic possibilities of simultaneous perception in a garden became manifest and terribly exciting.

The role of the axis—act of centering—is critical in Rome, in Paris, and in Beijing. In my highly edited versions of those great traditions, the axis is employed with subtly and reveals itself slowly and, most rewardingly, to those who search for it. Le Notre and the classic—and overpowering—French approach is not for me.

Scholar’s Garden, Souzhou

Forbidden City, Beijing

Paul Klee’s 1922 painting Plan for a Garden has long inspired me, as has Klee’s entire body of work, long before I had such passion for garden design. It is abstract but wonderfully alive with texture and complexity, unlike so much dull abstract art. Its architectonic quality, with both straight lines and curves, circumscribe both contained and open-ended spaces, spaces of great complexity—not “rooms,” a hackneyed cliché at this point. It implies a kind of kineticism—you want to start walking through those spaces! —that is thrilling to me. Yet… it is bounded by strong edges: the garden stops, the wild forest takes over. The monochromatic quality reminds me that gardens are mostly not colors—rather textures—and many shades of green define summer more than colors. And tan (or white with snow) define the beguiling winter scene.

Paul Klee, Plan for a Garden, 1922

I have downplayed the role of color in the garden —but I am surely a colorist like most other gardeners and strive to create at least a few startling combinations. Many painters inspire me but this painting by Vlaminck has inspired color sensibilities since that day as a college senior I was compelled to copy it — using Colortone paper, under the masterful tutelage of the painter, my Yale professor Richard Lytle.

Maurice de Vlaminck, Landscape with Red Trees, 1907

And I have been stopped in my tracks every time I come on Kandinsky’s wonderful little landscape, The Waterfall, hanging in the Yale Art Gallery…

Wassily Kandinsky, The Waterfall, 1909

This is the second of a five part series. Stay tuned for “Installment #3: A Garden Grows…”!